Elk, members of the deer family, are one of the largest mammals on the North American continent. When explorers first came to this continent, they mistook the elk for moose and named it accordingly. The northern European word for moose sounds a great deal like “elk.”
At one time, these animals were widespread, but thanks to habitat loss and overhunting, their populations have declined, especially along the eastern parts of the U.S. Although they’re not as common as they once were, there are some populations of elk that still thrive in the western states, particularly in Washington state.
Their range in the western states goes as far south and east as New Mexico and north into Canada. Arizona has a strictly controlled population in the higher alpine mountains. The animals seek out the subalpine zones during the summer and migrate south in the winter. West of the Mississippi, the only place with a native population of North American elk is the lower peninsula of Michigan. Their herd numbers over 1,000 who graze on 105,000 acres.
Physical Characteristics of North American Elk
Among the North American elk species, the Roosevelt elk is the largest. The male might weigh as much as 1,300 pounds while the female as much as 630 pounds. Normal weight ranges from 300 pounds for males and 260 for females. The smallest elk are the Tule subspecies, weighing from 170 to 550 pounds for both genders. They live in the central valley of California.
Elk as food has always been valued highly. Its flavor is similar to beef but without the fat calories or gamey taste that other wild animals have. Nutritionally similar to chicken breast, elk meat is lean, full of protein, vitamins and minerals.
States have elk hunting seasons and most use a lottery system to issue the licenses. Wildlife biologists exercise control over the elk herd populations by controlling the number of hunting licenses issued in any given year.
Throughout the U.S., elk ranches exist to supply the demand for elk meat and provide hunting opportunities. They require enough acreage to support the need for habitat and grazing. Ranchers also provide supplemental food and water. Some of these ranchers guarantee 100 percent success. The guests can select from self-guided hunting or a guided tour.
Elk Deer Diet
The elk eat primarily at sunrise and sunset. Like cattle, they are ruminants and have four separate stomachs that help them digest their food. They are capable of digesting the twigs and branches they eat during the winter when little is growing or the ground is covered with snow. Elk migrate seasonally, heading higher into the mountains in the summer and seeking out valleys in sheltered locations in the winter.
Because they’re easier to navigate, elk prefer open woodlands rather than dense forests. They’re found in swampland, clear cut forests, whether they’re coniferous-hardwood or aspen-hard wood forests. At one time, they were prolific across the U.S, but thanks to overhunting and habitat loss, they’re rare along the east coast, while there are still some healthy populations in the western states.
Elk are herd animals, unlike moose that are solitary. Since they tend to forage in groups, some ranchers and farmers consider them nuisances. They will graze on whatever vegetation is available. When it’s short in the natural world, they have been known to graze on crops and backyard gardens. Since they eat branches and twigs when leafy vegetation is unavailable, they can do serious harm to forests and landscapes during droughts.
Elk tend to stay in groups with their own gender until mating season, also called the rut. The first indicator of the rutting season is the molting of the velvet from the bull’s horns. It starts in late September through early October.
The purpose of the horns is primarily to establish dominance among other bulls in the herd. The size and shape of the horns are related to the amount of testosterone in the bull elk, and not its size or age.
Besides molting velvet from the horns, the males will start to bugle, which attracts females and competing males to their locations. Louder bulls bring in more females. Bulls fight among themselves intensely for dominance within the herd and the fights can injure the weaker bull.
The elk form harems consisting of one bull and numerous females and eventually, their calves. Bulls between two and four years of age and those over 11 don’t normally have harems. The bulls that do may lose up to 20 percent of the body weight during the rut because they put their energy into competing rather than eating.
Gestation lasts eight months. The young are called calves and born with spots that serve as camouflage. They hide for the first few weeks of life while the mother forages for food. The calves nurse for two months. Most births are singletons for first-time mothers, while twins and singletons are more common in mature cows. A female calf is capable of reproducing at one year of age.
Once the rut is over, the elk go back to their single-sex groups. The males might lose their antlers and send out scouts to watch for and fend off predators. In the event a predator approaches a female group, the largest and strongest among them will form a barrier to prevent the predators from attacking.
North American Elk Lifetime
A healthy elk can live for 20-plus years Its predators are primarily man, bears, wolves coyotes, jaguars, bobcats and coyotes. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) that is fatal to elk and deer, but not thought to be transmittable to the humans who eat the mat. Elk are hardy animals and not susceptible to parasites or diseases unless they’re confined too closely together.